Insights into Learning Language from a Mediocre Polyglot
My language learning history:
TLDR: Age 0 Cantonese + English, Age 2 French, Age 12 Mandarin, Age 21 Spanish, Age 22 Italian
My first language is Cantonese. This is the language I was most comfortable with up until the time I was about 6 or 7.
I was also exposed to English from an early age, so I soaked a lot of it up just by being alive? Just like with Cantonese, I don’t remember “learning” it. I didn’t like to use it, but I don’t remember having any issues understanding or communicating when I had to (like when I was at school). I remember when I was in senior kindergarten (age 5), I thought most of my peers as illiterate and innumerate dumbos. I started reading before I have memories of learning how to read. I was also good at pattern recognition when it came to numbers. I remember we would have these progress sheets, where the teacher would ask us to write up to the highest number we knew. I just remember sitting at the desk longer than anyone else because I kept writing bigger and bigger numbers. I didn’t know what the numbers were called, but I knew that you used the digits 1-9 until you get back to 0 and added 1 to the tens column. Like, these were simple patterns people.
I don’t mention this to brag about my genius five year old math skills, but just to illustrate how I was able to recognize patterns early on.
By the time I was two years old, when I started Montessori school, I was also learning French. This is the first language I remember learning. The fact that I took French until I was fourteen years old and still cannot speak French is a testament to what a colossal failure my French education was. I cannot string a sentence together, don’t remember any of the grammar anymore, but have a large and random vocabulary of mostly nouns.
In seventh grade (age 12) Mandarin was a mandatory class. I took Mandarin as an elective throughout high school, and then for the first two years of my undergrad (2nd and 3rd year courses). I had some really great Mandarin teachers over the years. My AP Mandarin class had three students, and since the three of us were at vastly different levels, the teacher held private classes for each of us (she was awesome). I also had a private tutor throughout high school. Now, since the AP Mandarin was taken on the computer, we abandoned learning how to write characters and just focused on learning words and typing.
(This following little tid bit is relevant, bear with me).
Writing Chinese characters is really hard. I just don’t have the memory for it. My writing is terrible so I don’t recognize when it’s written correctly. I was always an exceptional speller because I recognized patterns in how words are written (roots, prefixes, etc.) and what the word shape is supposed to be like. I never had to study for a spelling test and still remember which words I got wrong (visit not vist: 3rd grade spelling test with Mrs. McQueen).
University Mandarin was a struggle mostly because for every homework assignment I had to type out everything, and then copy it onto paper. I really, truly cannot remember how to write words I didn’t learn in middle school.
So for my CEMS MiM degree there’s a language requirement. You have to be fluent in two languages and have a basic proficiency in a 3rd. My problem was that Mandarin and Cantonese could not be my 2nd and 3rd languages. And so, as a condition of admission I was required to take Spanish for a semester. I passed the course, thus proving my elementary A1 proficiency in Spanish. (I did take a beginner’s course over the summer between 3rd and 4th year at the University of Toronto, to get a head start.)
Since you have to be able to read, write, and speak a language for it to count as a “mother tongue”, I couldn’t use Cantonese as my 2nd language. I can’t read or write traditional Chinese characters.
However, according to my Mandarin prof, a little bit of brushing up and supplementary vocabulary learning, I should be able to pass the standardized Mandarin exam (HSK) at the required level (B2/HSK4).
Thus begun my two year journey of trying to nail this one standardized test that my graduation depended on. This was a journey akin to Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom, okay? It was perilous, full of anxiety, and I escaped by the skin of my teeth.* (For the full story scroll to the end).
For my final semester of my Master’s I attended Bocconi in Milan, Italy, where they speak Italian and only Italian. I remember putting my bags into the cab, and communicated by pointing to an address I couldn’t pronounce on a piece of paper. Literally all I had was ciao, spaghetti, pizza, mozzarella? I took a crash course in Italian and was then surrounded by Italian all day every day for five months.
And so, at the end of the day here is where I am at for each of these languages (other than English).
I can hold a conversation provided that the conversation doesn’t stray outside of what one might talk about at home. So politics, history, the news, TV…forget about it. Household chores, grocery shopping, and like the five things I like for dim sum, no problem.
There’s a YouTuber named JLou that makes the video content of my polyglot dreams. Her Cantonese is np for my 6 year old vocabulary.
I have many gripes with my history with this language. I really wish that we focused on spoken French over written French. Because while I am able to read French from a guide book, the language is NOT spoken like it is written, which makes it SO hard to understand what someone is trying to say to me.
I successfully got a haircut in Beijing and it was great. I can communicate and understand people if they speak slowly and use commonly spoken words.
The most frustrating part about living in Beijing was how little Mandarin I was actually exposed to. My entire class consisted of no Chinese students, just the 23 international students. And, whenever I went off campus, I would speak in Mandarin and be responded to in the local dialect. Unfortunately, it was not a successful immersion experience.
Completing my internship in Nicaragua would have been a great place to practice all the Spanish I had just learned. I even went to Spanish school there for a week. And then once I was set free… I realized that all the locals speak with an accent that rendered the language incomprehensible to me. I thought my Spanish skills were completely toast until I went on a two week trip through Spain during my semester in Europe. I was on a bilingual Spanish-English tour group and to my surprise, if I missed any of the guide’s explanation in English, I could catch on the second round in Spanish.
My Italian is better than both my Spanish and French despite having spent the least amount of time learning it. The difference was complete immersion. Even my school projects required Italian to complete (in-field research and interviews). I arrived in Italy with my Italian at 0, and within months I would go entire days without English. I wasn’t engaging in like high-level conversations, but I could definitely get by comfortably. I even got a haircut by the end of the semester and it turned out great!
And so, my final conclusion is that language fluency should be measured in your ability to get a haircut and have it turn out okay.
I think my ability to inherently recognize patterns in words has helped in learning languages, especially latin based ones. Italian was the easiest language for me because I already knew so many words in French, I could make inferences to meaning a lot quicker. However, I now have a very real problem where French, Spanish, and Italian is all jumbled up in my head as language soup.
It’s also interesting to think about “where” language is stored in my brain. I really feel like my brain is wired for English and Cantonese as the two main
“gears” or “operating systems”. When I need to process Mandarin, I boot up the Cantonese operating system and do some weird translation gymnastics. The other three languages are stored in another poorly organized hard-drive that runs on some other operating system (that wasn’t fully developed).
The one thing I am most proud of is my ability to mimic accents. I have fooled both native French and Spanish speakers by regurgitating one of my very few phrases. “Ou est la toilette?” “Muchas gracias!”
Lesson #1: Use it or lose it
I mean, this is pretty self-explanatory. However, this applies to even your native language. The cool thing about having studied in an international program was that I was able to befriend lots of other polyglots and learn about their experiences navigating a multilingual world. Most of us have experienced some sort of regression of our mother tongues at one point or another.
The most interesting thing after living abroad for two years was how much of my English vocabulary I lost. Words that I used with less frequency… just disappeared. I would be reaching for a word for a situation and just wouldn’t be able to recall it. In terms of using using unique words in every day life and writing, according to Grammarly, I am something in the 99th percentile. (I have a friend who used to identify me as “large vocabulary girl”.) However, I found that in order to communicate with people who are not native English speakers, I had to par down on my choice of words and idiom use. But, I can’t emphasize how bizarre it is to feel yourself losing your native language.
Lesson #2: Immersion is key
Look, I don’t even watching TV in English. There’s no way I’m watching a Spanish soap opera. That being said I have many friends who have learned language skills through watching TV. It helps when you’re invested in the story. But for me, unless I am forced by circumstances to use a language, it’s just probably not going to happen. What about apps? I have used Duolingo with some success in learning vocabulary because it reinforces repetition.
However, nothing compares to learning a language out of necessity and applying what you’ve learned right away. You can’t get the repetition required to truly learn something without constant exposure. Language learning is largely based on repetition.
What’s interesting is how quickly I can re-pick up languages when I travel. It all comes rushing back if you give me a few days. When I’m traveling to another English-speaking part of the world I tend to pick up accents really easily (it’s uncanny).
Lesson #3: Learn with the goal of communication
As long as you’re communicating and I understand what you mean, I don’t really care about your grammar. And neither should you.
For example in a group chat last week, I had a friend use the phrase “swiping the floor”. It makes sense to me that they would be familiar with the word “swiping” because we swipe screens all day long, and the word “sweeping” would be less frequently used. But at the end of the day, I know exactly what they meant.
Also, I never ever correct someone while they are trying to speak to me. I find that it is very discouraging as it makes people self-conscious of themselves. As native speakers of any language, I think it’s really important to encourage those who are trying to learn as much as possible. I have been on the other end of this and that feeling of embarrassment lasts much longer than the grammar lesson.
So much of communication is based on context, and if you can get the context right and the odd word wrong, it’s fine. I think the one video that hit this home the most is this video:
If you go and read the script, almost all the words are real English words. It’s just that out of context you can’t tell when one word ends and another begins. You can definitely tell that the sounds are English, but it’s just complete gibberish. Anything outside of my learned vocabularies, with the right context I can figure out and follow a conversation. However without context, this is what I’m comprehending (complete with the polite smile and affirmative head bob):
Lesson #4: Have a drink
This one is no joke. If you need to practice a language it helps to lose that part of yourself that’s self conscious and scared of making mistakes. You’ll find yourself more fluent than you might otherwise believe. It’s not just the alcohol, there is science behind this.
Lesson #5: Date someone with a different mothertongue
I guess this is kind of like lesson #2, but like, I have friends who have stumbled through language barriers into fluency. I’m just saying. It takes commitment, time, and just a lot of commitment haha.
Anyways, this was inspired by me stumbling across the “sounds like English” videos and having a moment of revelation about learning languages and how I’ve learned languages.
*Okay, so the thing is… I couldn’t pass the Mandarin speaking exam. Mostly because I am a really poor aural learner. I just do not take in information by listening. The exam had a whole segment where they read a sentence to you and you have to repeat it back verbatim. I literally would not be able to do this in English. Coupled with the fact that there are a bunch of other people in the room taking the test at the same time, my brain just got really confused and I kept failing the exam.
And since I had to have both the written and speaking exam to fulfill that graduation requirement, and I kept failing the second part of the exam, I spent an entire summer lobbying for me to be able to use Cantonese as my second language instead of Mandarin. Literally the only reason I couldn’t use Cantonese in the first place was because I wasn’t able to complete the written statement with pen and paper. And they wouldn’t let me use simplified Chinese characters for a Cantonese statement. This is dumb because written Chinese is the same regardless of dialect. And simplified vs traditional characters is like, there are two alphabets one is lowercase and the other is uppercase. Like, LANGUAGE vs language.
So I wrote a bunch of emails to the head honchos over in Europe in charge of CEMS and was like, “Look, can I please write the mother tongue declaration on a computer and in simplified Chinese.” For the record, according to every Mandarin teacher I’ve ever had, I have perfect Cantonese grammar whenever I hand in homework. So finally, two years of studying and failing many Mandarin exams concluded with me driving two hours to Ivey to spend 5 minutes writing a statement on a blank Word document in the admissions office at Ivey.
Anyways, that is the story of how I graduated but barely because of this technicality and my actual disability level inability to write Chinese with a pen.